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A Drumset Teacher's Edge: Playing Bass with Your Drum Students

Todd Reber
Contributing Writer

Todd Reber writes:

I'm a lifelong drummer who has been playing for quite a few years now. How long? Well, picture me as a skinny eighth grader pounding out surf rock beats on my older brother's used Ludwigs when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. That was 1964, buddy! Through the years, I've played drums professionally in rock bands, blues bands, wedding bands, and jazz groups. I consider myself a competent journeyman drummer who can deliver the right groove for most songs and get the job done.

About five years ago, while looking for a new musical challenge, I decided to learn the electric bass. I have a decent foundation in music theory, a good ear, and years of listening closely to basslines while playing drums onstage. So I bought a used electric bass guitar and an instruction book with a CD. The book focused on jump blues, which is a favorite style of mine, so it was a lot of fun. Within a year, I was playing bass in an eight piece swing band and on my way.

Teaching Beginning Drumset

Books for Beginners

Budding drummers have a wide selection of method books to choose from. Here are some of the author's favorites (links open in new window):

Drum Method: From Beginner to Advanced Student
Craig Lauritsen

Building Blocks of Rock
Dawn Richardson

Rock Studies for Drumset
James Morton

I still play drumset, and periodically a word-of-mouth referral leads to a request to teach beginning drumset to another young rocker. My typical new student is a boy in middle school - maybe thirteen or fourteen years old. He's the proud new owner of his first drumset, with plenty of desire but no real idea where to begin with drums. So we begin with tuning his drumset, finding a comfortable setup for the kit, and learning the correct grip for holding drumsticks. Then we dive right in with a basic 4/4 backbeat - first with three limbs, then soon all four. Next come a few syncopations with the kick drum, followed by some simple drum fills. Then we move on to one of several books I recommend for reading, independence, and progress as a drummer (see sidebar).

Drumset method books contain lots of good material to develop a young drummer's skills. But let's face it: there's a huge gap between nailing two bar patterns in a drum book and actually playing drums in a band. So I've found a way to bridge that divide. It is simple, enjoyable, provides valuable musical experience, and it works every time - my student and I jam together on drumset and electric bass.

I happened on this approach by accident: One of my students, Alexander, had been a star pupil working through his second book when his family moved into a new house. Their garage was set up as a music studio, which included Alexander's drumset and his father's Fender jazz bass and amp. At his father's request, I started playing a little bass during Alexander's weekly lesson. Something of a novelty at first, the drum and bass jam soon became his favorite activity and a wonderful teaching aid.

Every Day I Have The Blues

The author - ready to jam!

We began with the 12-bar blues. The pattern is simple, familiar, repetitive, and offers numerous possibilities for variations. So every couple of lessons, depending on his progress, we might look at a new tune. Here are some good choices:

  • Blues Rock: "Born in Chicago"
  • Jump Blues: "Jump, Jive, and Wail"
  • Slow Blues: "Stormy Monday"
  • Shuffle Blues: "Sweet Home Chicago"
  • Blues Rumba: "Crosscut Saw"
  • Doubletime Backbeat: "Mess Around"

Later on, we build on this foundation with a few more songs, including:

  • 50's Rock: "Twist and Shout"
  • Latin Rock: "Watermelon Man"
  • Funky Feel: James Brown's "4 And" beat
  • Medium Jazz: "Killer Joe"
  • Jazz Brushes: C Jam Blues
  • Bossa Nova: "Girl from Ipanema"

A novice drummer needs time and repetition to master a new beat. So I consider each song a work in progress and offer plenty of review. I might try a different tempo or suggest a new fill that fits the style. Another challenge can be variations in the ride, such as playing quarter notes on the bell of the ride cymbal instead of straight eighth notes on the closed high hat. My goal is for the student to not only learn a particular song, but also to master a few stylistically correct variations.

Developing Young Musicians

Making music together offers numerous opportunities to teach musicianship to a novice drummer. Our first priority is timekeeping, that is, keeping the beat steady and the time solid for the entire song. Next, I ask the student to consider the following stylistic points:

  • What is the form?
  • Can you hear the turnaround that sets up the next progression?
  • Does your drum part complement the bass?
  • What sort of fills work, and when?
  • If you make a mistake, can you keep going?
  • How might you change your playing to support a vocalist or soloist?
  • What are some other variations that work?
  • What did the drummer play on the original recording?

I believe this teaching method provides a wealth of experience that prepares a new drummer to play in a first band. Based on what I learned with Alexander, I now incorporate drum and bass segments into all of my drum lessons. My home studio is equipped for it. If I regularly travel to a student's house, I often leave a small bass amp there. My students develop a core repertoire of drum styles that transfer easily to many types of popular music. They also develop the confidence that comes from experience. Most importantly, making music together is simply a lot of fun - and having fun is what it's all about. LM

Todd Reber is a musician and music teacher in Seattle, WA. He is the leader and bassplayer with the swinging variety band Rainy City Riff Raff. Comments about this article are welcome and should be sent to

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